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Investigating the past

Kristina Michahelles/ db
May 16, 2013

Brazil's efforts to shed light on human rights violations committed during decades of military rule are moving sluggishly. The National Truth Commission hopes for support from Germany's visiting President Joachim Gauck.

People look at an exhibit called "Right to Remember and Truth" in Brasilia, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006. The exhibit commemorates the 27th anniversary of the amnesty law that allowed former exiled guerrillas to return to Brazil. The posters at right were used by the dictatorship to look for wanted guerrillas. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres) BRAZIL OUT **EFE OUT** PHOTO MADE AVAILABLE AUG. 30 2006 Restrictions: This content contains certain restrictions, click to view Restrictions in the Special Instructions field . Use Information: This content is intended for editorial use only. For other uses, additional clearances may be required.
Image: AP

During Brazil's military rule from 1964 to 1985, Rosa Maria Cardoso defended political prisoners. Today, the 67-year-old lawyer coordinates the country's National Truth Commission (NTC). It means a lot to her that German President Joachim Gauck made time to meet with members of the commission before wrapping up his three-day visit to Brazil on Friday.

"I hope Gauck will be an inspiration to us in our efforts toward democracy and enlightenment," she told DW, adding she also hopes the former East German pastor and the federal commissioner for the Stasi archives will show the Brazilian commission avenues for a "step-by-step renunciation of authoritarianism."

Established one year ago, the National Truth Commission in Brazil began its task of investigating into human rights violations during more than two decades of military rule. According to official reports, 480 people were killed under the regime, 160 people disappeared without a trace, and more than 100,000 people were imprisoned for political reasons. An estimated 50,000 people were tortured.

The NTC's seven members were personally appointed by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who herself was persecuted, tortured and imprisoned during the military dictatorship.

Sluggish progress

Coming to terms with the recent past may be a central concern for the country's president, but it is still problematic almost three decades after the country opted for a democracy. According to Rosa Maria Cardoso, several factors complicate the commission's work, including continued violence against the population, extreme social inequality and growing inflation.

Rosa Maria Cardoso, Copyright: Marcelo Camargo/ABr
Commission member Rosa Maria CardosoImage: Marcelo Camargo/ABr

The slow pace is due to a "silence pact," Cardoso said. "Brazil's social elite deliberately misuse the state's weakness to further their own interests."

"Many developments in the history of our country occurred without abrupt change," said Joao Ricardo Dornelles, a lawyer and member of the Truth Commission. Treaties and accords, including the Declaration of Independence in 1822 and the abolition of slavery in 1889, were made without involving the public.

The understanding between opponents and supporters of military dictatorship led to a controlled transitional phase, Dornelles said, which meant blocking progress in some areas, such as clearing up human rights violations and finding proof of repression by state organizations. Syllabi in Brazilian military academies are still based on the doctrine of national security used to justify the 1964 coup d'état in Brazil, he said.

Meanwhile, Brazil's step-by-step efforts at coming to terms with the past remain sluggish. In neighboring Argentina and Chile, many perpetrators are already being held accountable while Brazil has only just begun to search for its dead and disappeared.  

Brazil under fire

According to the Brazilian constitution, the search for the truth was originally meant to start in 1988. At that time, however, the issue appeared to be of little interest to the government and society. Only relatives of the former political prisoners, of the disappeared and murdered people and a few human rights organizations pushed for an investigation.

Rousseff and Gauck Copyright: imago/Xinhua
Both Rousseff and Gauck experienced dictatorial ruleImage: imago/Xinhua

Years later, in 1995, the issue resurfaced in the public eye in the wake of the creation of a Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances. Again, several years passed, before a certain amount of material and symbolic compensation was granted in 2003. In 2010, the Organization of American States' Inter-American Court of Human Rights held Brazil responsible for the disappearances and deaths of members of the Araguaia guerrilla movement, active between 1972 and 1974.

For the first time in Brazil, coming to terms with the past has assumed public importance with the inauguration of the National Truth Commission a year ago. There are some acts of violence that must not be kept silent and that Brazil's youth must be aware of, Rosa Cardoso said, adding, "We do not merely want to inform - we want to mobilize the Brazilian society to search for the truth."

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